Mack Louden spits Copenhagen juice on the floor of the empty storage bay of his shuttered feed store in Trinidad, a small town in southeastern Colorado an hour’s drive from Louden’s ranch. He rests his hand on a leather cell phone holster like a gunslinger might. Then he grins. Or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t frown. He is letting something happen that’s pretty alien to his nature: There’s a photographer with a lens about two inches from the nose on Louden’s life-creased, weather-worn face, crowding his personal space. Under any other circumstances, someone this far inside his personal space would get some serious pushback.
But Louden, an activist for the group Not 1 More Acre!, puts up with the inconvenience. What the cause asks for, ranchers like Louden give. The alternative is the end of life as they know it. Publicity is a powerful if uncomfortable weapon for people accustomed to their privacy, for whom property lines and personal space are more important than mere law. In the asymmetrical war these ranchers are fighting, they use any weapon they can, because theirs is an opponent that tends to win: the U.S. Army.
The Army already occupies 245,000 acres of Colorado’s desolate Piñon Canyon, which it uses for large-scale, force-on-force mechanized brigade combat exercises involving tanks and armored units. But since 2006 Uncle Sam has had his eye on at least 418,000 acres more, to handle increased demand for maneuvers and the expansion of Fort Carson.
Most of that land is private property in the Comanche National Grasslands lying between the rustic ranching towns of La Junta, Trinidad, and Walsenburg. The proposed annexation, which would create a contiguous Army-owned area 85 percent the size of Rhode Island, has attracted loud opposition from local landowners, environmentalists, scientists, and politicians. Their combined efforts were enough to gain a congressionally ordered reprieve in 2007, but the Army appears determined to wear them down. In fact, the training ground expansion may be just the first phase of an enormous land grab potentially involving millions of acres.
The Army’s land envy is why Louden, the 58-year-old son and grandson of Colorado ranchers, closed Marty Feeds, a Trinidad landmark for almost a century, in the summer of 2008. He could run a ranch, run a business, or fight the land grab, but not all three at once. “When it comes down to it, this is what’s important,” Louden says, sitting upstairs in the nearly vacant building after the photo shoot, spitting into a paper cup to underline his point. “It’s driving my wife crazy how much of my time this has taken, but no matter what it costs me I’d fight it again if I had the chance.”
‘This land is not for sale at any price.’
Piñon Canyon is a barren but ranchable landscape on the east side of the Continental Divide that resembles the kind of high desert environment found in much of Iraq, which is one reason the military uses it for training. The Army says it needs to expand the existing Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site (PCMS), where armored and mechanized units out of nearby Fort Carson conduct live-fire training exercises twice a year. The additional space is needed, the argument goes, to enable Fort Carson’s growth and to allow units larger than a battalion to conduct exercises on a wider variety of terrain.
Opponents say such a seizure would devastate local economies, affecting as many as 50,000 people who live in the towns surrounding the PCMS, plus 567 ranches, and more than $20 million a year in agricultural production, mostly in the form of cattle.
Lon Robertson, a neighbor of Louden’s (meaning his property is within 20 miles) and the head of the Piñon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition, emphasizes that it’s not just about the land. “The impact on this whole region will be monumental,” Robertson says. “It will be devastating.” Aside from the estimated $20 million in ranching business directly affected, neighboring ranches will feel the impact of nearby maneuvers—live-fire tank battles will disturb both rancher and ranched—and the closing of certain access roads in the area. Louden’s one-hour drive from his ranch to Trinidad, for example, would turn into a two-hour detour around the new maneuver site. Most of the towns depend on ranching and agricultural commerce. An expansion could mean their end, unless the ghost towns are turned into urban warfare training sites.
Some of the ranch deeds in these parts go back to the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave 160 acres of unoccupied land to anyone moving west in exchange for a small fee and five years’ residence. Folks here refer to each other’s land as “country,” as in, “That’s Kenny’s country over there.” Louden’s family traces its local roots to 1902, when his grandfather rode on horseback from Indiana down the Santa Fe Trail and settled about 60 miles east of Trinidad. “This land is not for sale at any price,” Louden says, repeating a phrase you can find on bumper stickers and yard signs throughout the area.
The Department of Defense already owns about 25 million acres in the United States, of which the Army’s share is 15 million. The military says that’s not enough, because to train the right way, it needs a certain kind of terrain, within a certain proximity to existing bases, and it needs lots of it. Local ranchers have an answer to that: Not one more acre. The battle cry is the name of their nonprofit action group.
The current Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site is 245,000 acres along and around the Purgatoire River. It was taken, or purchased after eminent domain proceedings, in September 1983 at a cost of about $26 million ($53.5 million in current dollars) plus $2 million ($4.1 million today) for relocating dozens of ranchers and their families. Southeast Coloradans were promised two things in 1983: There would be no further expansion, and the PCMS would not be used for live-fire exercises. “I reiterate there will be no live firing at [PCMS],” a major general at Fort Carson wrote to a participant at one of the preliminary public hearings on the initial Piñon Canyon seizures, in a letter dated July 30, 1980.
But neither promise has been kept. And some of the same people in the Army’s sights now had their ranch land taken a quarter-century ago.
These people are not your typical anti-military types. They’re dyed-in-the-wool Red Staters, many of them service veterans. They just don’t see why the Army needs their land, given all it already has. “If they needed it for legitimate defense of our country, I think every last one of us would give them our land,” Louden says. “But they don’t need this land. They just want it. They already own 25 million acres. Why do they need this land here?”
Army spokesman Dave Foster says the area is needed to expand the PCMS partly because the number of soldiers stationed at Fort Carson, the base for the units that use the training ground, will grow from 16,000 to 25,000 during the next two years. “Changes to unit organization in the past year, upgrades to technology, and a decision to add a fifth [brigade combat team] have all pushed the doctrinal training land requirements up, not down, at Fort Carson,” Foster says. As for why the Army doesn’t use some of the copious land it already has, Foster says in many cases the terrain isn’t right or the land is subject to federal restrictions preventing it from being used for training. What it really boils down to, he admits, is convenience.
“In order to support Fort Carson–based soldiers, other federal lands must not only be suitable and available, they must also be within 200 miles of Fort Carson/PCMS,” Foster says. “If the federal lands are further away than 200 miles, the burden on soldiers and families to use the land regularly for home-station readiness training purposes becomes so great that the Army would be forced to consider re-aligning units away from Fort Carson and to other installations with closer facilities.” He adds, “There are a handful of federal landholdings…that the Army is investigating further, [but] none of these are assured or problem-free. Securing permission from other federal agencies to train on these lands is a lengthy and difficult process.” In other words, it’s easier to take property from private owners than it is to use land held by other branches of the government.
Louden’s response: “Yeah, it’s convenient for them. The generals can fly down, observe training and maneuvers, and fly back to Colorado Springs in time to play golf in the afternoon.” Spit.
‘The bureaucracy has a power all its own.’
The insurgency against the expansion sprang up almost immediately after word of the plan became public in 2006. Piñon Canyon also includes portions of the historic Santa Fe Trail, and a number of dinosaur fossils and footprints have been found in the area. So the opposition has grown into a broad coalition of ranchers, archaeologists, paleontologists, tribal leaders, and business owners. The landscape here is at once rugged and fragile, supporting only plants with shallow root systems. These patchy, protein-rich short grasses keep herds fed in the winter, and they’re interspersed with rugged scrub and easily damaged rocky flatland given to dust storms. Even today, the ruts made by wagons traveling the Santa Fe Trail more than a century ago are plainly visible in the flats. Imagine what a 67-ton Abrams tank or an 18-ton Stryker combat vehicle on maneuvers can do, not to mention the impact of live-fire exercises in a place where lightning sparks grassfires that burn hundreds of acres at a go.
The Army initially planned to seize the extra land through eminent domain, according to Army study documents, as it did back in the 1980s. It would be on firm legal ground, since national defense is a clear “public use,” as required by the Fifth Amendment. But since many Colorado ranchers had been down this road before, they mobilized immediately. Among other tactics, they have used demands for studies of the project’s environmental and historical impact to hold it up both in the Army’s own processes and through the courts.
Steve Wooten has a ranch a quarter mile away from land the Army wants. In 2007 he started coordinating an effort to make an ecological, biological, and historical assessment of properties that have mostly been off-limits to surveyors. “Nothing of this extent has ever been done because no one ever had access to these lands but their owners,” Wooten says. “We’re getting teams of experts in here to conduct these surveys and submit them as evidence of the impact the PCMS expansion would have.” Meanwhile, Not 1 More Acre! halted the construction of a 16-barrack military base on the western edge of the existing training site with an April 2008 lawsuit charging that the Army was violating the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 by failing to make the required environmental, cultural, and economic impact statements. The Army is appealing a federal judge’s ruling in the group’s favor.
Anti-expansion activists also have lobbied their local, state, and federal representatives. Municipal and county governments throughout the area, with the exception of Trinidad itself, have passed resolutions against the expansion, and so has the state legislature. In 2007 opponents won their biggest victory so far: Reps. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) and John Salazar (D-Colo.) pushed through a one-year congressional ban on funding for eminent domain acquisitions or expansion activities in Piñon Canyon. Last year Congress extended the ban through the end of fiscal 2009.
But Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), whose district includes Colorado Springs, supports the expansion. Lamborn led an effort to let the Army circumvent the spending ban by attaching language to the 2009 Defense Authorization Act that allowed the solicitation of “willing sellers.” Although the amendment was not successful, the Army says it still reserves the right to solicit sales.
Keith Eastin, assistant secretary of the Army for installations and environment, has said the Army is speaking to some potential sellers. But despite repeated inquiries from members of Congress, the buyer hasn’t revealed who these landowners are. “The Army believes it can buy the land it needs from willing sellers,” Foster, the Army spokesman, says. “The Army has no desire to assert its condemnation authority, does not feel such authority is needed in this case, and seeks only the ability to buy on the open real estate market like any other organization.”
Opponents say that’s an end run around the funding ban’s intent. They say the Army’s aim is a checkerboard land grab that would make acquisition of other desired parcels inevitable by devaluing them. Live-fire war games among armored units and demands for access easements tend to drive down land values, not to mention spook cattle. Army land purchases also could intimidate holdouts, who will worry that they won’t get as much in compensation should eminent domain come later.
Many smaller ranchers also worry that there would be less political opposition to eminent domain proceedings against the remaining holdouts if the Army got halfway to its goal by soliciting or strong-arming other owners.
“For the past two years I’ve worked on preventing the Army from spending any money on the expansion,” Rep. Musgrave says. “But they are very tenacious. They have time and all the things government has on their side.” What about soliciting willing sellers? “I’m so tired of anyone saying if you have a willing seller it shouldn’t be a problem,” Musgrave says. “First, they have not found one. Second, everyone else’s property rights are at risk from eminent domain once the Army starts getting a parcel here or there. They just never stop. The bureaucracy has a power all its own.”
‘There’s no compromise that can be made.’
A new twist came in September 2008, when the Army backtracked and said it only needed 100,000 acres of the 418,000 it initially sought and formally announced. For now. The reasons cited were vague. “Land acquisition resources are not unlimited; the Army has other land acquisition efforts it needs and wants to pursue at other locations,” Foster says, carefully sidestepping the question of whether the Army is moving toward its goal one phase at a time.
Yet even the full 418,000 acres might not be the end of the story. According to a 2004 policy document prepared by Fort Carson entitled “Analysis of Alternatives Study: Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site, Colorado,” the Pentagon has been seeking since at least 2004 to acquire 7 million total acres in southeastern Colorado, stretching all the way down to New Mexico. Such an acquisition would displace 17,000 residents and create a military reservation larger than Massachusetts.
The study lays out the need to take over some 6 million acres of private land and 1 million acres of U.S. Forest Service land to form an installation for training all four services as well as foreign allied forces. This land grab would happen in phases, the first of which being the Army’s acquisition of the 100,000 acres it is now seeking in Piñon Canyon, a transfer that would displace about 220 residents.
Opponents characterize the Fort Carson report as a smoking gun. “Far from compromising its plans, the Army is actually sticking almost exactly to the phased acquisition laid out in this document,” Louden said in a written statement about the documents in September. “Army assistant secretary Keith Eastin has stated publicly that the Pentagon will be back for more land in the future.”
“First 400,000 acres, then 100,000—they just want to wear everyone down,” Rep. Musgrave says. “It’s all part of one colossal land grab in Colorado.” She has little doubt the Army’s long-term goal is to acquire the full 7 million acres. “And it’s always hanging over everyone,” she says. “You can bet if there is [a permanent solution], we will find it. But bureaucracy has all the time in the world. They can be very patient and come back when this crowd gets worn down. I support the military with all my heart, but they’re not right here. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
Jim Herrell, a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Army brought by Not 1 More Acre!, echoes Musgrave’s distrust. “The Army got its foot in the door in the 1980s with promises that they’d never be back and there would be no live fire,” he says. “Those promises are broken. Every level of democracy has voiced its opposition to the expansion of the size and boundaries at Piñon Canyon clearly and repeatedly, yet the Pentagon and its contractors refuse to heed the will of the people.”
Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), Rep. Salazar’s brother, also seems fed up with the Army’s maneuvering. “Quite frankly, the Army needs to be a better neighbor with the land they have now,” he says. “When the Army announced its plans to expand, it created a cloud of uncertainty. The Army wasn’t able to effectively answer questions on why they needed the land, which land they wanted, how much land they thought they needed, whether they would use eminent domain, and what the impacts would be.”
What he says next sounds reassuring to an outsider, but it suggests why the opposition considers Salazar a soft ally at best. “The Army needs to answer those questions,” he says. “I have set up a process in law that requires them to do that. Until this process is complete, and the [Government Accountability Office], the public, and Congress have had a chance to review the Army’s reasoning and plans, the expansion should not move forward. I am still hopeful that there is a way to find a win-win solution.”
Kimmi Lewis, a third-generation rancher who watched the initial drama at Piñon Canyon unfold in the late 1970s and early ’80s and who saw friends lose their land, is doubtful. "There’s no compromise that can be made,” he says. “They don’t ever stop.”
‘The people are losing the government.’
Driving across miles of dirt road that run along the PCMS—cattle to the right, the Army’s “Keep Off ” signs to the left—Louden says he thinks one of the biggest obstacles he and his fellow activists face is that journalists and other opinion makers in places like Washington and New York City can’t fathom the scale of land under discussion.
“For someone who pays $1 million for a 1,000-square-foot apartment or a quarter-acre lot,” he says, “they think 100,000 acres is all the land in the world. Why not give up a little?” But in this part of the country a rancher needs up to 100 acres to support a single head of cattle, just one cow. Herds are fed grain in the warmer months and live off that protein-rich grass in the harsh winter. Louden, whose own 30,000-acre ranch supports just 300 head of Red Angus, says that when all is said and done, a rancher with an operation the size of his nets about $35,000 a year. Most ranchers or their wives work extra jobs to make ends meet and pay for health insurance.
Louden and I are driving with Kennie Gyurman, who lost his ranch to the first PCMS taking in 1983 and is still mad about it 25 years later. Gyurman is showing us some of the damage on the PCMS from the grassfires of late summer. The Army says the fires were caused by lightning, but ranchers suspect they were caused by training activities in the area. A powerful black storm is rolling in, massive in the wide-open vista made possible by the flatness of this land. The refrain about broken promises continues.
“You can’t trust a thing they tell you,” Gyurman says. “They’ll say they want one thing and take another. They’ll say they just want this much, and then they’ll take everything. We have to stop them.”
The opponents aren’t just saying no because it’s their land. Louden’s ranch isn’t actually in the Army’s sights. His position is as much philosophical as it is a matter of self-interest. “The people are losing the government,” he says. “The Pentagon is going ahead with their plans despite all the studies they’re supposed to be doing and despite what the people and their elected representatives have said they want. It affects everyone in this region, and they’re not even following their own rules.
“We are all Americans. We all support our country and our military. But the military is supposed to answer to the people, and to serve to protect our rights. What is the military defending us from if they’re the ones who take our land? I’m not a picket sign kind of guy. But fighting this? It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”